Leadership: February 9, 2004


Some battlefield lessons are difficult to digest, and cause institutional indigestion as well. The most recent case of this was the 2001 Afghanistan campaign. Less than a hundred Special Forces troops, backed by 24/7 air support, were all that was needed to support the Northern Alliance forces and defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda forces in two months. The twelve man Special Forces A Teams operated as they were trained to do. Using initiative, imagination and a good working relationship with their Afghan allies, the went straight for their main goal; the destruction of Taliban and al Qaeda combat units. 

When higher ranking commanders arrived, things began to slow down. Middle management brings in more people looking for something to do. Special Forces units are organized into groups (brigades) and battalions. There are small staffs to assist the lieutenant colonels (commanding battalions) and colonels (commanding groups.) These guys want to look like they are doing something, so they start communication with their subordinates. This takes time. Before the brass arrived, the twelve man A Teams (six of these comprise a company, supervised by a major and a small staff) were free to get the job done. Now they had to deal with lots of "supervision." This slowed things down. The guys in the A Teams see anyone above company commander as a career officer more interested in getting promoted than in helping the A Teams do their job. 

There were other command problems as well. The army wanted to get more troops into Afghanistan, at least so secure bases could be set up. Some of these bases were important, like the airport outside Kabul. There were also diplomats and other government bureaucrats arriving to deal with the new government, and the army had to protect these people.

Meanwhile, the A Teams were eager to go round up senior Taliban leaders and al Qaeda members. But the time of "just doing it" were over. Plans had to be drawn up, discussed and implemented. This was not good for the fluid situation that still existed at the end of 2001 in Afghanistan. You knew it was all over for the fast moving A Teams when the order came down for everyone to get into uniform and shave the damn beards off. The A Teams had been wearing Afghan clothes and letting the whiskers sprout so they could blend in with the friendly Afghans they were working with, and not tip off the bad guys they were chasing. But now the army was in charge, and there was a chain of command that had to be consulted.

There was a similar situation in Iraq, but it didn't involve the Special Forces. While there were even more A Teams operating in Iraq, they were again turned loose and left alone until the fighting was over. But the regular army found that the battle was moving so quickly that the brigade and division commanders didn't have a lot of control over the operation. It was a battalion commanders war. The only valuable things the combat battalion commanders wanted from their superiors were ammo and fuel, and information. The "intelligence" (information), as usual, didn't get down to the battalion commanders fast enough to be useful. But the battalion commanders had "Blue Force Tracker," a laptop based computer program that showed them on the screen where all friendly troops were (via a transmitter all small units had, that sent info to a satellite, and then down to the Blue Force Tracker equipped laptops.) This gave the battalion commanders important information on where friendly troops were, and using instant messaging build into Blue Force Tracker, they could quickly exchange information on the enemy with nearby friendly units. Thus the battalion commanders didnt have to rely on intelligence from above. So the battalion commanders just fought their way forward. The only orders they got from above were what general direction to go in and where they could find the fuel and ammo trucks they needed resupply from in order to keep moving and fighting. The brigade and division commanders were smart enough to see what worked, and pretty much left the battalion commanders to take care of the war. 

The next war will be a little different. The army is installing the other components of the "battlefield Internet" that Blue Force Tracker was only a part of. The complete system will enable a senior commander to instantly see where all his people are and reports showing the latest information on enemy troops (red icons on the same screen, along with all the blue "friendly" ones). No one yet knows how senior commanders will deal with that degree of control. The information on enemy troop locations will probably be pretty accurate, because battalions and companies will have their own mini-UAVs, which will provide more information on what's in front of friendly battalions. In the past, the senior commanders would have everyone halt while information on enemy and friendly positions was examined and a plan prepared. But the 2003 campaign showed that you can make more progress if you just let the battalion commanders size up the situation in front of them and act immediately. 

The good news is that in 2003, the brigade and division commanders trusted their battalion commanders and let them fight the battle as they saw fit. But that was because the battalion commanders had better information, thanks to Blue Force Tracker, than ever before. Will the senior brass trust the battalion commanders again? Probably. But that could change. Some senior commanders are tempted by this unprecedented amount of information, and every division commander is tempted to run the battalions again. The battlefield Internet system, in theory, allows them to do that. We won't know how this will play out until the next major campaign comes along.

The Special Forces are still debating on how to deal with all those middle management officers. The big problem with the Special Forces is they very high quality of their A Team troops. These men are the best America has. Well trained, smart, and with lots of initiative and eagerness to quickly solve problems and get on with it. The Special Forces will also have Blue Force Tracker, and lots of other battlefield Internet stuff. They also have their own mini-UAVs. 

The next war is never exactly like the last one. But past experience does influence future operations. Exactly how won't be known until it happens.




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